Hidden Divisions: Part 2

Until this module, I had never heard of the difference between the Suffragists and the Suffragettes, and even my knowledge of the stages of first- and second-wave feminism was limited. Despite having grown up female and attending an all-girls secondary school, I had never come across these terms before. Of course, I heard heard of the Suffragettes and some its most famous members like Emmeline Pankhurst, but aside from that I had been given the impression that the “women’s movement” was some kind of unified collection of women fighting for equality throughout the course of history.

As referred to in part 1 of Hidden Divisions, Charles Tilly regards this as part of two problems that arise out of misunderstandings of social movements which lack historical context. The first being the tendency to view social movements as expressions of contemporary conditions and the second as treating ‘the movement’ as a single narrative (Tilly, 2004). However, in approaching such movements from a historical perspective it is possible to combat this issue of the single narrative and rediscover the power relations, conflict and divisions that existed within the movement itself. The Suffragists and the Suffragettes provide us with an interesting example in which to view the existence of such divisions within the ‘women’s movement’ of first-wave feminism.

So, who were the Suffragists?


The Suffragists originally formed in 1865 as a women’s intellectual discussion group called the Kensington Society. Initially comprising of 11 members of mostly unmarried women who wanted to pursue careers in medicine or education, the Kensington society first discussed the topic of parliamentary reform on the 21st November 1865 in which they proposed the question “is the extension of the Parliamentary suffrage to women desirable, and if so under what circumstances?” The Society women felt it was grossly unfair that women were not entitled to the vote and committed to fight for this right. Over the next few years, the Kensington Society grew into several individual groups including the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage and Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage in response to several disappointments of the continual failure to include women in the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts, and the growing popularity of the Suffragist movement. By 14th October 1897, these groups came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and elected Millicent Garratt Fawcett as its president.

A NUWSS leaflet from 1913, demonstrating its various branches. Courtesy of the British Library

The NUWSS favoured a non-confrontational approach which used a variety of peaceful political activities including demonstrations, public meetings, petitions, letter writing, newspaper articles and distribution of free literature. Their aim was to secure the vote on the basis of ‘full adult suffrage’ – the idea that all adults, including working class men, deserved the vote. The NUWSS placed great emphasis on non-militant tactics and meeting, what Tilly would later come to define as, W.U.N.C: Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment. As seen above, the NUWSS often used the term ‘law-abiding’ to define themselves and this rhetoric was strongly pushed by elected president Millicent Fawcett. These are two key areas in which the Suffragists differed from the Suffragettes.

NUWSS publication, 1913, courtesy of the British Library

And who were the Suffragettes?


Out of the two groups, most people have heard of the Suffragettes. Whether it be the as a result of the infamous Emmeline Pankurst, having heard legendary stories of Suffragette Emily Davison running onto the tracks of Epsom Derby in 1913, or through popular culture depictions such as the Suffragettes (2015) starring Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter. Yet, most people are unaware of many of the differences between the Suffragists and the Suffragettes.

Having been attending Suffragist meetings since the age of 14, Emmeline Pankhurst had become increasingly dissatisfied with the aims and tactics of the NUWSS. Not only did Pankhurst believe that the NUWSS was advancing too slowly in the fight for the vote, but she had also been the subject of much controversy and criticism during her time with the NUWSS due to her radical views. Whereas the NUWSS emphasised women’s right to vote in order to help men to make the country better, Pankhurst believed that women should have access to equality the same rights that were extended to men. Due to these incommensurable differences, Pankhurst decided to form a smaller group called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Adopting a much more radical stance than the NUWSS, the WSPU limited membership to women-only, were not interested in universal suffrage but suffrage for women only, refused to align with any political party and committed to the view that nothing but action was good enough – leading to the creation of their motto ‘Deeds Not Words’.

Also unlike the NUWSS, the WSPU did not shy away from the use of militant tactics which they famously became known for. The Suffragettes used a number of confrontational tactics including hunger strikes, interrupting political meetings, vandalism of public property, assaulting police officers, and violent demonstrations. Moreover, the announcement of The Franchise Bill before the House of Commons 1912-1913, which included amendments in favour of women’s suffrage, was ruled out of order by the Speaker. The WSPU saw this as a deliberate attack on the suffrage movement and this lead to a spate of arson and bombings from 1913-1914 including three attacks on the homes of anti-suffrage politicians, the planting of a bomb in the Home Secretary’s office, and an arson attack at the Theatre Royal in Dublin in June-July 1912 (Bearman, 2005, p365). Such militancy was seen as particularly attractive, both at the time and in the subsequent historiography, leading to the infamy of the Suffragettes and the Pankhurst’s in particular. However, the infamous militant tactics of the WSPU could very well have set the suffrage campaign back decades if not for the arrival of World War 1. In Bearman’s perspective, such an arrival not only provided an easy way out for the government to take, in terms of making a deal with the Suffragettes to stop their militancy whilst gaining their support for the war effort, but also “rescued the Pankhursts and the suffrage cause as well, and made possible an outcome in which Emmeline gained a (deserved) public statue… rather than a reputation as a failed terrorist” (p397).

Major contrasts and conflicts between these two groups.

The women’s suffrage movement as a whole utilised a variety of protest tactics and social repertoires as identified by Taylor and Van Dyke (2004) including conventional strategies of political persuasion, such as petitioning and lobbying, confrontational tactics and violent acts which caused material and economic loss, and cultural forms of political expression such as theatre (Carlson, 2006) and the spectacle of protest (Tickner, 1987). As Carlson argues, “each of the major organizations, from the most radical to the most conservative, made use of public space and theatrically inspired events to promote the cause for women” (p100), and this was one of the unifying elements of the suffrage movement. The use of urban space as both the point of the struggle and as a resource for political mobilization is an integral part of the women’s suffrage movement, as “to think about politics and power is nearly always to invoke a set of spatial relations” (Tonkiss, 2005, p59). By ‘taking to the streets’, women powerfully subverted the use of domestic and public space in a way which embodied their political commitment for, as Tonkiss points out, the political spectacle of thousands of women could not be ignored (p55).

However, as Tilly (1993/1994) argued social movements are clusters of contentious, interactive performances, and as such there were also many conflicts and divisions which emerged out of the protest tactics used by the NUWSS and WSPU.

One of the first examples of such conflict arises from Emmeline Pankhurst’s decision to split from the NUWSS and create the WSPU in the first place. Pankhurst had grown disillusioned with the aims and methods of NUWSS, arguing that they had not been pushing hard enough for women’s suffrage, she felt strongly that women deserved not only the vote, but equal rights to men. This contrasts strongly with the suffragist view that women should be given the vote to support the men who run the country. This highlights that although the NUWSS and WSPU both exhibited features consistent with W.U.N.C, they differed in terms of what part of the W.U.N.C criteria they emphasised. For the suffragists, worthiness played the greatest role as demonstrated by the emphasis on “law-abiding” tactics and support for men remaining dominant in society overall. In sharp contrast, for the suffragettes, the greater use of direct action and more radical demands demonstrates that it was commitment that acted as the major driving force.

A disparity in the threshold of participation between the two groups further demonstrates how their tactical differences are inextricably linked to their respective ideologies and aims. For the NUWSS the most effective tactics were those that did not overtly challenge the establishment, by linking their struggle to the labour movement and opening their membership to men they were able to become a cosmopolitan movement. This was not only as a tactic to increase numbers of supporters but to further bolster their collective claim-making to legitimacy and worthiness by asserting, through their actions, that they merely wished to be part of the establishment, rather than to change the nature of the establishment itself. Their focus on low participation threshold actions such as peaceful demonstration, educational literature and use of official channels further demonstrates their commitment to upholding the current paradigm they wished to become a part of, the suffragists used a tasking of asking, not demanding.

For the WSPU however, their aims directly challenged the status quo through the claim that women should be equal in their own right, not just to enable them to better support men. Given the radical nature of their aims and belief that the current system must be openly challenged, their actions sought to attract only the most committed supporters who would follow them to their ultimate goal and who were willing to disrupt society, as for the WSPU, it was only through direct action that the establishment would pay attention. This influenced the movement in two ways, the first was the decision to only allow membership to fellow women, thus becoming an autonomous movement,  and the second was the use actions and tactics that required a high to extremely high participation threshold such as direct action, trespassing, damage to property, violent protest and arson.

Despite the strength of both movements, their respective ideologies and tactics also brought about challenges that can be examined through the lens of the paradox of diffusion. In the case of the suffragists, their commitment to gaining votes for women in order to support men, in combination with the “baby steps” tactics of “law-abiding” peaceful protest and education left many women feeling disillusioned, with the result that, despite many efforts to gain mass support, the suffragists fell in popularity amongst women, with a major demonstration in 1908 only attracting 10,000-15,000 people compared to a suffragette demonstration just days later that attracted 250,000-300,000 people. For the suffragettes, the challenge they faced was not one of disconnect from it’s core supporters but a lack of ability to gain a sympathetic audience within the male political establishment, their commitment to radical demands, womens’ suffrage and rights for their own sake and often violent tactics caused them to be seen as a threat, where as the suffragists were seen as more worthy (despite also not being listened to).  These movements therefore sat at polar opposites of the diffusion paradox, with NUWSS looking too  much like the dominant culture, thus losing core supporters and being ignored by the establishment; and WSPU looking too different to the dominant culture, thus being seen as a dangerous threat by the establishment and struggling to meet their goals despite popular support amongst women. It was only during World War I, when the WSPU became willing to compromise and make deals with the establishment, thereby losing some of their own character, that they began to make real progress towards womens’ suffrage.

This analysis of how the women’s suffrage movement succeeded, not as a single group of women achieving unified goals using tactics agreed through consensus, but as a collection of conflicting factions each with their own aims and ideals, demonstrates clearly how narratives of historical social movements that portray them as cohesive and teleological fails to see social movements for what they truly are, site of contentious politics and conflict within society.  In the case of the “Ascent of Woman” this narrative paints too simple a picture of the fight for women’s equality that fails to recognise that there is no singular women’s experience, rather, there are as many women’s experiences as there are women. Social movements, particularly divisions within them, are important sites in which to analyse and understand these various experiences; to gain a more accurate picture of the conflicting needs of individuals, groups and social actors so that we might begin to see that divisions, conflict and dramatic forms of political expression used to shape public opinion and put pressure on the authorities are defining features of all social movements (Taylor and Van Dyke, p263).


C. J. Bearman, ‘An Examination of Suffragette Violence’, English Historical Review, 120:486 (2005), pp. 365-397

‘Suffragists’, The British Library, 2017. Available at: <http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/struggle/suffrage1/suffragists.html&gt; [Accessed on 21 Friday 2017]

Susan Carlson, ‘Suffrage Theatre: Community Activism and Political Commitment’ in Mary Luckhurst, ed., A companion to modern British and Irish drama: 1880-2005 (Oxford, 2006)

Vera Taylor and Nella van Dyke ‘“Get up, Stand up’: Tactical Repertoires of Social Movements’, in David A. Snow, et. al., eds., The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)

Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign 1907-14. Chapter 3: ‘Spectacle’ (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987), pp. 55-150

Charles Tilly, ‘Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances’,Berkley Journal of Sociology, vol. 38 (1993/4) pp. 1-30

Fran Tonkiss, ‘The Politics of Space: Social Movements and Public Space’ in Fran Tonkiss, Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)




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